Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Don't believe everything you read

A recent trip to a chain bookstore opened my eyes to the vast number of new books about the medicinal virtues of wild plants.

After thumbing through one offered by a well-known national publisher, I was astounded at what lay inside.

Here’s what bothered me the most. The book listed a number of common wild plants, none of which are known for their medicinal properties. In many instances, it seemed that the author stretched the point by listing all the various ills that the plants were supposed to treat. And that seems at best, misleading.

Such books typically target “newbies,” folks who have only recently become interested in wild plants and their uses. So they buy these books and consider information therein as gospel. But this can be terribly dangerous. Here’s why.

Lots of people can’t afford medical treatment for their health problems. Others simply eschew visits to the doctor. For these folks, wild medicinal plants offer hope and in some cases, panacea. But in so many cases, treating a serious condition with some plant that may or may not have any worth is risky business at best.

Even worse, books, not just the new batch of books to erupt out of the “green revival,” but even books of some generations ago, go out of their way to list every conceivable use for any given plant. Typically, we might read something like (I’m making this up, it’s only an example), “Cattail pollen, mixed with water, was traditionally used by Zuni Indians to treat pneumonia.”

In truth, anyone who thinks he or she may have pneumonia should head to the nearest doctor, hospital or clinic, pronto. Delayed treatment means delayed recovery, something that can lead to tissue scarring, not a good thing at all.

Of course lots of excellent wild plant medicines exist out there, but nowhere near as many as some people would have us believe. And worse, some plants can have serious interactions with prescription medications. In other cases, using wild plants as medicine can be dangerous for people with certain medical conditions.

It is always advisable to check with a qualified medical practitioner first before ingesting any wild plant as medicine. And relying on some obscure reference in a book may be even more dangerous.

So think before treating. And don’t believe everything you read.

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